Whither Washingtoniana?

Matthew Gilmore Discussion
Whither Washingtoniana?

By Matthew Gilmore

As the temporary closure of Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, DC, for long-overdue renovation draws nigh, a huge question remains unanswered for the local history community—whither Washingtoniana?

Plans have been announced for the relocation of the DC Public Library’s administrative offices to an office building at 1990 K Street NW. For those less familiar with Washington, DC, this location is near the end of the downtown business district, ten blocks west of MLK Library.  It does have the advantage of some transit access—an Orange/Blue/Silver-line Metro station just one block away and the Circulator and Metro buses. The building itself, built in 1978, is slated for redevelopment; other temporary residents include the displaced Goethe Institute.

The building at 1990 K Street NW. Photograph taken by Matthew Gilmore.

The building at 1990 K Street NW. Photograph taken by Matthew Gilmore.

The 24,000 square feet of space is to be leased for library administrative offices. A tiny space, 5,800 square feet, has been leased for public service: the space “will host a computer training classroom, up to 12 public computers, space for adult literacy programs and a center for accessibility, space for holds to be picked up, and a small collection of new books.”[1]

While that space is simply inadequate, the silence on public access to Washingtoniana during the several years’ renovation closure has been deafening. Washingtoniana is unique—not only is it the unequalled collection of local history materials on Washington, DC, it is the resource for current information on Washington (the uniqueness of this combination is probably unrealized by the library itself). Every format of material has been collected: books, photographs, newspapers, microfilm, magazines, archival materials, sound recordings, video recordings. The collection was initiated in 1905 and became a separate division in 1928. It expanded greatly with the 1982 donation of the Washington Star photograph and newspaper clipping morgues. In 1996 I was able to write:

The Washingtoniana Division has evolved far beyond a traditional local history room—devoted to antiquarian and genealogical interests—into a department rare in scope and content among American public libraries. Washingtoniana aims to collect the substantive materials of the city’s life and times, including laws and regulations, history, description, economics, religion, sociology, physical geography, education, housing, architecture, urban planning, art, literature, fiction, and biography—in addition to antiquarian and genealogical materials. Washingtoniana also collects maps, theses and dissertations, postcards, archival materials, and databases. Today’s collection stands at approximately 20,000 volumes, 1,000 linear feet of vertical files, more than one million photographs, and 8,000 reels of microfilm.[2]

Other specialized collections have particular strengths, but Washingtoniana is the foundational starting place for researching the history of the District of Columbia—Any serious researcher on Washington, DC, makes use of Washingtoniana. Georgetown Branch Library’s Peabody Room of Georgetowniana has been brought under Washingtoniana’s jurisdiction since then. Washingtoniana has straddled the division between public library and special collection, offering uniquely open access. No other special or academic library collection offers similar access.

Even with generous physical access, intellectual access has always posed a challenge. Cataloging of materials is divided across several online and paper catalogs. Preservation has been a concern as well—progress is being made—materials have been microfilmed and now are being digitized and housed in “Dig DC.” “Dig DC is your portal to selected digital collections from DC Public Library Special Collections. Find photos, maps, oral histories and more documenting the history of Washington D.C.” Washingtoniana participated in the US Newspaper Program (USNP) as the District of Columbia grantee.

The historical primary and secondary research resources of Washington are distributed across numerous institutions—each with its own goals, resources, and governance—and ownership of materials. It is the responsibility of each to build a strong, vital role in the individual organizations in which they are embedded and bring those greater resources to bear for the good of the cause of documenting Washington’s history.  The concept of combining any should be put to rest, allowing each to draw on its own individual strengths and mandates. Digital collaboration is the proper realm of collaboration, not the chimera of unifying physical collections.

While efforts are ongoing to set the DC Office of Public Records aright—and much progress has been made since my post last year—“Struggling to Preserve: Washington DC’s Archives and Public Records Office”—it is uncomfortable, to say the least, to contemplate an multiyear embargo on access to the unique resources of Washingtoniana. A mooted extremely limited “service point” located somewhere cannot hope to be adequate for access to materials, both in scope and hours of access.

Local history is a core part of the public library mission—the American Library Association just recently published Local History Reference Collections for Public Libraries articulating trends, practices, users, and needs for any public library local history collection. Neighboring Arlington County Library has invested in making its Center of Local History (formerly Virginiana Room) a model public library local history enterprise, but it does not match the scope of Washingtoniana for current materials. That the architectural renderings for the library renovation give no indication of any substantive research space is rather disturbing.[3]

Continued near-term and long-term substantive provisions for access to this unique collection—printed text, vertical file, microfilm, map, and photograph collections documenting the history of Washington—is what the DC population and the historical community locally and nationally require and deserve and should demand.


Further Reading

Garner, Joshua, “Washingtoniana Marks Its Centennial,” Common Denominator, January 24, 2005.

Mecanoo, Martinez & Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington DC

Kennicott, Philip, “Mecanoo, Martinez & Johnson to Renovate MLK Library,” WashingtonPost, February 18, 2014.

  1. “DC Will Move Central Library to a Downtown Office Building during MLK Renovation,”Michael Neibauer, Washington Business Journal, June 29, 2016; and  “1990 K St NW Will Be Temporary Space for Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library,” Matthew Gilmore, July 5, 2016, H-DC.
  2. “DC Public Library’s Washingtoniana Division Marks Centennial,” Matthew B. Gilmore.Washington History 8, no. 2 (Fall/Winter, 1996/1997): 77-78.
  3. “DC Public Library Releases More Renderings of the MLK Library Renovation,” By Sara Johnson,  Architect, October 22, 2015

Matthew Gilmore is the Editor at H-DC, a website which covers public humanities news and events in the District of Columbia. A link to Matthew’s webpage can be found here. He worked as a reference, collection development, and special projects librarian in Washingtoniana for a number of years.


One comment on “Whither Washingtoniana?”
  1. The most effective way to try to ascertain the DC Public Library’s position on access to and support of the Washingtoniana Division would be to attend their next Board of Trustees meeting, which has been rescheduled to August 17 at 6 pm at Martin Luther King Library. The topic is not on the agenda but could be raised in the public comments at the start of the meeting.

    See this link for the Board meeting schedules:

    and this link for the agenda and related documents:

    (note: the meeting had been scheduled for July 27 and this link reflects the original date)

    The Board has some public comment procedures to follow:

    Meetings of the Board of Library Trustees
    The District of Columbia Board of Library Trustees designates a portion of each of its meetings to hear public comments.

    Effective with the November 18, 2009, board meeting,public comments will be heard at the beginning of a meeting.Procedures below have been revised to reflect these changes.

    1. In order to make comments, members of the public must sign up by phone on the day of the meeting between noon and 5 p.m. by calling the Executive Office – 202-727-1101.

    2. Members of the public can also sign up in person from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the location of the meeting.

    3. Individuals wishing to speak at the meeting will be asked to provide their name and address and the topic they plan to address.